(Artvoice 17 February 2000)
 

Peace Bridge Interview
Jeff Belt: “You Have to be An Optimist”

by Bruce Jackson

Jeff Belt recently returned to Buffalo after working for GM for 15 years. He is a mechanical engineer (Cornell) and has MBA from the Institute of Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland.  He became involved in the Peace Bridge question in  December 1998 when he heard West Side community activist Bob Biniszkiewicsz analyze the potential impact on Buffalo of a restored Front Park and a bridge plaza that was integrated with the city rather than imposed upon it. With Bill Banas, he heads the New Millennium Group’s Peace Bridge Action Group and he is the New Millennium Group’s representative to the Public Consensus Review Panel, the organization funded by the city, county, Wendt Foundation and Community Foundation to evaluate alternatives to the Public Bridge Authority’s companion span design. I doubt that anyone knows as much as Belt about the financial, political, social, and technical aspects of the Peace Bridge issue. What follows are extracts from a conversation we had a few days ago about what he considered the key issues of the Peace Bridge affair.
 
 

[STRATEGY]

This is really a pretty great place for young families with children in terms of quality of life and the cost of living when you’re starting out. But we aren’t doing projects that are uniquely consistent with that as a strategic objective. Young families with children don’t need convention centers, but they do need world-class children’s hospitals. They don’t need truck processing facilities in their neighborhoods but they do need parks. They need playing fields and stuff. If we can begin to resolve strategically where we’re going to find our relevance in the coming 20 and 50 years, then we can begin to plan projects that are consistent.

We need to develop a regional strategy. What put Buffalo here was a grand infrastructure project called the Erie Canal and it was east-west trade. The NAFTA agreement has brought a tectonic shift in the direction of trade. Now it flows pan-North-American and soon it’s going to be flowing pan-American, and it’s going to be flowing north and south. We’re in a very lucky position--just 90 miles beneath Toronto. I’ve talked with leaders in Toronto and they say that Toronto is beginning to recognize the importance of Buffalo. I think that we need to have a strategy that we’re going to be relevant in the economy of North America and our relevance is going to be tied to our relationship to Toronto which is going to persist as a great North American city, really a world-class North American city. If we can begin to frame our strategic thinking like that, then we can do projects that are consistent with that strategy.

This is new ground that we’re cutting. I’m very happy to be a member of the Public Consensus Review panel and the New Millennium Group is absolutely thrilled that there IS a panel. This is what we were asking for. The New Millennium Group suggested that I sit on the panel only because I have done the most research on the project of anybody and I have been able to commit the most amount of time, although there are others who have committed a heck of a lot of time.

I guess I just came to the forefront as spokesperson because I decided in February that I was going to commit nine months to the project. I said I’m just going to clear my calendar and I’m going to make this my full-time activity for nine months because this is my home, my home town, it’s something that I think is strategically imperative. I think if we screw up the Peace Bridge that we’re doomed, fundamentally. So it’s worth spending nine months on it. And it’s now been 12 months and I’m still committed to it because I see a light at the end of the tunnel.
 

[DISRUPTION]

The PBA and its friends say all this delay is causing us major problems, serious harm. Is there, as they insist, a real need to start construction right away?

There’s a real need to improve the capacity of the Peace Bridge Gateway. I spent six years in the Tonawanda engine plant and what I worked on there was capital utilization–finding out where the bottleneck is in the sequence of part production and resolving the bottleneck. The bottleneck at the Peace Bridge is the secondary inspection facility on the US side. That problem will not be resolved until 2010 or 2011 in the Public Bridge Authority’s plan of record.

Their own data demonstrates that we have enough lanes across the river to handle all the traffic for several years into the future if there were free flow at both ends. But you go by the bridge and there’s always traffic backed up coming into the United States. Why? Because there’s a bottleneck there and it’s in the plaza. So if we go forward with their companion bridge project we’re really going to do nothing but exacerbate the bottleneck. For two reasons. One, during the construction project for the companion bridge the steel, the material, and the equipment for that construction project will be staged in the plaza and in the park, so it’s just going to make a mess for people to drive around. During the connecting road project there will be detours through the Scajacwada and Delaware Park. Three thousand trucks a day through Delaware Park and down the Kensington. That will be a nightmare for commuters and people who use the park. So that’s going to be very disruptive.

And then the reconstruction of the existing bridge will be very disruptive. That, again, will necessitate the staging of equipment and material in the US plaza. Then there will be the incremental reconstruction of the US plaza while six lanes of bridge of bridge capacity are funneling through it.

What we’d advocate is that the city and the Bridge Authority work together to acquire land for a new plaza, a new US plaza location, so that an all-new bridge and all-new plaza can be built in one go. Don’t disrupt the existing infrastructure at all. When the new infrastructure is ready to go, just shift the traffic over with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and we’re off and running.

That’s the way Tampa did it, that’s the way Charleston is doing it, that’s the way Alton, Illinois, did it. Every other city does it that way.

That’s what Bruno Freschi was always saying: there’s no need to tie up the city for all that time.

He was right. And we’re talking ten years with their plan. It only took two years of construction chaos to wipe out Main Street’s retail when the metrorail went in. If metrorail could have gone in in the wink of an eye, Main Street probably would have been served by metrorail. You’d have had trolleys and pedestrians passing down along those stores. But the stores couldn’t sustain two years of construction chaos.

Our question is: can our economy, which is really sustained by the Toronto economy, sustain ten years of disconnect from that economy that drives us?
 

[TIME ]

If we do a full environmental impact study, I think we’re going to be able to examine the alternatives well enough to recognize that they really are doable, that we really can implement them, and that we can find the money for it. The city of Boston is spending something on the order of $100 million a week of federal money on infrastructure projects. Why? Because they asked for it. If we ask for it, I think we can find the money. Particularly if we have a strategy and a good plan that is consistent with our overarching regional strategy.

Another thing--and this is kind of a minor argument but it could become a major argument--if Toronto is successful in their effort to attract the Olympics in the year 2008, and if we go with the all new infrastructural approach, we could celebrate our participation in Toronto’s Olympics with a brand new bridge and a brand new plaza and a park system. And it would all be up and running by 2008.

It could happen in seven years?

Absolutely. The Bridge Authority engineers are raising the specter of interminable delay, but the city of Tampa required five years from the time that the ocean freighter wiped out one of their twin skyway bridges until they were able to open the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge. They had no preparatory work done; they had no reason to believe that they were going to have to build a new bridge there at all. It all happened in the wink of an eye on a foggy morning. Five years later they’re up and running.

And that’s a huge bridge.

That’s an eight-mile-long bridge. It’s very doable. With the amount of work that the Bridge Authority has already done in terms of engineering and environmental impact assessments, I see no reason–particularly if they use the Public Consensus Review Panel as their body public to bounce ideas off of and get them through the EIS in an express manner–they shouldn’t be able to get through that in eighteen months or so. Maybe two years. They can get the design work done in parallel with the EIS. Building a new bridge and plaza as one unified system could be completed in three or four subsequent years.
 

[MONEY]

I talked to three people in the last two weeks who heard that the PBA has been burying the Review Panel consultants with a huge amount of financial information in an attempt to convince them that the only way to go is to build the second three-lane bridge into the current plaza, that there’s no money for anything else.

I wish the consultants would put more financial information on the table. They’re clearly leaning toward the thesis that anything other than the PBA’s plan of record is too hard. So far, however, they have not described in dollars and cents what they deem “too hard” to be. What we’ve got to do is look beyond the engineers’ fear of moving a water main or figuring out how to fit a thruway on-ramp alongside a railway track. All of the physical features that the engineers are fearful of were put there by humans and my thesis is that if they were put there by humans they can be rearranged by humans.

All the designs I’ve seen for a signature bridge seem significantly cheaper, both for construction and maintenance. But the PBA and its supporters, like Andrew Rudnick, continue to insist that the twin span is cheaper. Why?

I think there was good reason to believe that a signature span would more expensive before the quotations came in for the companion bridge. I think that was a big shock to everybody. Their original estimate way back when was about $65 million for the whole project: $54 for the companion and $11 I guess for redecking the old bridge. Back then one could probably say “A signature bridge will be more expensive because all the estimates for a signature bridge have been in the range of $75 to $90 million construction costs.”

But the companion bridge project as it stands right now is $110. And if they replace the Parker truss, we’re probably looking at a total of $140 million for the new companion bridge and the repaired old Peace Bridge with a new through arch so that it looks more like the new companion bridge.

And it may be even more than that. During last week’s meeting of the Greater Niagara Regional Transportation Council, Jake Lamb stated that the cost of the companion bridge had risen by yet another $16 million. That means the 3-lane companion bridge alone will cost about $106 million! Their total would be $156 million.

Enough for two signature bridges.

One signature bridge is all we need.

The thing is, there is no good way to estimate how much it would cost to build a companion bridge because nobody’s built a bridge like that since 1927. Signature bridges are built all the time, we know what those cost. And there are lots of people who know how to build them. But nobody knows how to build a duplicate of the Peace Bridge because it hasn’t been done in 75 years. So their cost estimates are probably still low.

And what about maintenance?

It’s generally accepted that the maintenance of a concrete bridge is going to run one to two percent of the capital costs of the bridge. That’s one to two percent of $70 to $90 million. And the maintenance on a steel bridge is going to run between three and four percent of the capital costs. So that’s three to four percent of $140 million. So you’re looking at maybe four times the maintenance costs.

So if  we take the worst maintenance and cost estimates for the concrete bridge and the best maintenance estimate for the steel bridge that still comes to .$1.8 million a year for the signature bridge and $4.23 million a year for the steel bridge, a difference of $2.43 million every single year. That’s a lot of money over time.

A lot of money.
 

[THE PLAZA]

Whichever bridge is built, there’s still the plaza to be dealt with. If the plaza is moved out of Front Park you’re looking at land acquisition cost. The way the engineers have established the alternative plazas, land acquisition will probably run to the order of $50 million. So they simply take that $50 million and they tack it right on the whole program and they say that’s the deal breaker.

I have a couple of reactions to that. Number one, if we build an all-new plaza we can make the bottleneck operation, which is the commercial vehicle inspection area, larger and more efficient, so we can actually resolve the bottleneck at the border. If you keep the plaza cramped where it is you’re not really resolving the bottleneck. So for 25% more money we might be able to buy 100% more capacity. If we begin to look at it in those terms then the cost-benefit is more palatable.

The other thing that I’ve pointed out is, we shouldn’t assume that the land that the plaza already occupies is worthless.

In the last meeting that I went to I took some paperwork with me from a report on Duluth, Minnesota. They’re in the process of a $250-million highway project up there that includes Interstate 35 across their waterfront. They’re going to spend $10 million capping over a section of Interstate 35 to enable waterfront access downtown. That’s going to give them three acres of waterfront park that they didn’t previously have. So on that basis I say, a waterfront park in Duluth, Minnesota, is worth $3.3 million an acre. If our waterfront is as valuable as Duluth’s waterfront, then the land that the Public Bridge Authority plaza is occupying is worth $50 million, and we should recognize that.

Maybe our waterfront is worth more than Duluth’s waterfront because the land that the Bridge Authority plaza occupies is our Presidio. It’s the only elevated waterfront land on our lakeshore. It’s really unique in the world. I can’t think of a place where you can stand at a high point of land looking out over a majestic river and expansive body of water onto a foreign country. The closest I can come to it is Istanbul, Turkey, and there you look on to the other half of Turkey. In Istanbul they turned that Presidio into the signature park for the entire country. It’s beautiful. They’ve got a beautiful suspension bridge across the straits. It’s done properly. They recognize that what they’ve got is unique real estate. I think that we need to do the same, and put a dollar value on that Presidio that the Bridge Authority currently occupies.

If you get a functional Presidio–right now it’s a useless area–there’s going to be an immediate increase in value for all the surrounding real estate, so the benefit is not just a resurrected Olmsted park, but increased value for everything contiguous, that whole section of town. That has happened everywhere that kind of restoration has occurred.

You don’t even have to make those arguments on the basis of conjecture or comparables out of town. You can merely look into our own past. When that park was contiguous, when it was functional, when we could go to that park and sit on a bench and look out over the river and the lake and Fort Erie and enjoy the view without the scent of diesel soot wafting by our nostrils, that was the most popular park in the city of Buffalo. That was what Pam Earl’s whole study of Front Park and the opportunity that the Peace Bridge expansion project presents to the city is all about.
 

[WHERE DO THE MONEY AND JOBS GO?]

Their companion bridge would be built with steel that would be manufactured in Indiana and Sault St. Marie, Ontario. The steel would be fabricated in Wisconsin, then brought here and erected by B.O.T. Construction Company out of Oakville, Ontario. We don’t really see where there’s much in it for Buffalo in that picture. All the money is being spent out of state.

We’ve said all along that if we could build a concrete bridge we could make the concrete sections right here in Buffalo or in Port Colborne along the waterfront and all the bridge would be local content, local workers. But we never really knew how make that argument strong until a few weeks ago when we received a report from the Ohio Department of Transportation. They’re building a signature bridge in Toledo, Ohio, over the Maumee river. One reason that they selected a concrete cable-stayed bridge instead of a steel bridge is because of the local content.

The numbers are as follows. For a $40 million steel bridge with a local construction company building it, they determined there would be $7 million of the $40 million spent for local erecting services. The rest of the money that would be spent on steel from out of state because there’s no real structural steel industry left in Ohio.

For an equivalent $40 million bridge made of concrete, they determined that $38.4 million of that money would be spent in northwestern  Ohio. So the cable stayed bridge won by a huge margin on local content.

A $40 million dollar bridge project in Toledo: if it’s steel, $7 million into the local economy; if it’s concrete, $38.4 million into the local economy. Five times as much.

I think that the Toledo Duluth stories are very relevant to our situation here in Buffalo. Both Toledo and Duluth are industrial cities on the Great Lakes and like Buffalo they’ve been in many ways left high and dry by trade routes that moved elsewhere. They both have lots of empty grain elevators on the waterfront. But they’re high quality of life, solid practical cities, and they don’t make decisions on the basis of willy-nilly imagery or whatever else. So we’re not talking about comparing Buffalo to Boston and San Francisco. We’re saying, look at what the people in Duluth and Toledo are doing. They’re real people. They’re like us.

I don’t feel very confident that the construction workers in the PBA’s companion bridge plan are going to be local either. B.O.T. is in Oakville, Ontario, and that’s only an hour commute away. Construction guys don’t mind jumping in the pickup truck and driving down the QEW for a day’s work. They may all be workers in Oakville and there could be nothing in it for workers in western New York or Fort Erie. I think that needs to be part of the consideration and I advocated as much at the Public Consensus Review Panel meeting last week.

We have a box on our chart that says “economic development” and I said “Look, I think we need to be specific about this. We need to look at local labor content, local material content, we need to look at the disruption created by the construction project. And user cost as well. If we are going to tie up the bridge for ten years with construction, all the people sitting in traffic are sacrificing their time , which  is worth money too. That needs to be evaluated in some way.”
 

[THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STUDY]

I assume these things would all be addressed in a full EIS, which the PBA has done everything it could to avoid.

Yes, they would be. The EIS should not be hard to do because the most difficult thing in an EIS, from what I’ve been told, is scoping the project–deciding what the range of alternatives are, what you can do, how far you can go one way and the other and what land you can use and what you can impact, how big anything is going to be, is it going to be two lanes, three lanes, four lanes, et cetera. The second most difficult job is identifying the affected public. I think that we already have scoped the project in the Public Consensus Review Panel. I also think that we’ve identified the affected public on the US side because the panel includes something like 30 members representing all kinds of different organizations and communities in Buffalo and Western New York. What we need to do is add some Canadian representation–they’re not sitting at the table but those representatives have been identified–and we’ve got it all pulled together.

So now it’s just a question of doing the engineering, gathering the data, presenting it, discussing it, and deciding what the best project is in terms of economic and social benefits and minimizing the negative environmental and social externalities. I think we’ve done the hard parts.

It’s not starting from scratch.

By no means. A lot of the data has been gathered and the people who are representing the communities where the bridge lands are all saying that everybody up there would love to make way for a better plaza. If it requires the acquisition of property that houses are sitting on or the Episcopal Church Home is sitting on, everybody is willing to be reasonable and move, and a lot of people want to move.
 

[PUBLIC MONEY AND PRIVATE DEBT]

It’s my understanding that there are several sources of federal money for various parts of projects of this type available that the PBA has not availed itself of. Is that consonant with what you know?

There could be money from ISTEA--the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act--and T-21, which  is a five-year extension of that. Senator Moynihan put a clause in one of those documents to make $125 million available for bridges at international border stations. Being that he is the senator from New York and that we only need one bridge at our international border, it’s specifically for the Peace Bridge project.

The Bridge Authority doesn’t want to use other money because they have a lot of money. They want to get themselves decidedly back into debt. That insures their existence. That’s why we need to have a reform measure to validate what it is that they do well--which is managing the gateway and maintaining the bridge, and not focus on what anybody can do. I can pay off debt. All you have to do is whip out a coupon and lick a stamp twice a month. That doesn’t take a genius.

If they availed themselves of these funds wouldn’t some of these financial issues that they’re raising disappear?

Yes. Furthermore, there’s really no telling what’s too expensive. Their revenue is exploding and it’s increasing. It’s been outrunning all of their projections. In 1998 their total revenue was about $25 million. They’re big, a very big operation. And their surplus is about $10 million a year. They imagine repainting the steel bridges every 15 years, but with a surplus of $10 million a year why bother repainting? You could just knock them down and put up new ones every ten years.

In the early ‘70s they came close to paying off all of their debt and as a consequence could have been vulnerable for dissolution. Every time they’ve come close to paying off their debt they’ve initiated new capital spending programs and floated additional debt to guarantee their existence.

I think that there should be a Public Bridge Authority charter revision effort that would guarantee the existence of the Public Bridge Authority in perpetuity, but guarantee their existence with a view toward them maintaining the bridge, and maybe the surrounding parkland too. Give them a portfolio of things that have to be done. There’s a lot of expertise in managing and maintaining an international gateway. Recognize that expertise in perpetuity and take the guillotine of declining indenture off their neck, as it were. If somebody on the US side would come in and say, “Look, we’re going to charter the Bridge Authority in perpetuity but we’re going to state you don’t have to be in debt. Paying your debt is not part of your mission per se. We’re going to recognize your expertise in your mission.” That could remove a lot of the weirdness that goes on. Because I do think that they feel threatened. They’ve been in a situation where they could be out of debt since 1990, so it’s a long time to be out there naked.
 

[WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?]

The Review Panel has a few more meetings with its consultants and then it issues its final report. What’s that report going to say and what happens next?

If at the end of it all we say, “Go ahead and build a twin span in the plaza where it is, what you said you wanted to do to begin with,” we will look like a bunch of idiots. We just held up this project for a year for what? And not only that, we’d then have to explain to the rest of the world why after a year of thorough study we decided that building a duplicate of a 1927 bridge was the best we could do when the rest of the world has figured out how to span rivers like the Niagara. We’d look like idiots.

I think that the Review Panel is going to say that there are reasonable alternatives to the Bridge Authority’s plan of record. And on that basis I think that Judge Fahey is going to say, if there are reasonable alternatives they really must be examined thoroughly through the formula of the environmental impact study. As a consequence he’ll mandate that the Bridge Authority perform a full environmental impact study. And I think that the Bridge Authority will go along with that. They’ll be able to augment the capacity of the commercial inspection facility a little bit by adding a scale and an inspection booth at primary, and they may come to the community and ask for some relief in parking trucks on the tennis courts or something of Front Park while we sort this out. And if everybody’s working in good faith we’ll say, “Yes, do it, to get us through the rough patch here.”

Do you think there is any possibility at this point that the PBA will renege on its promise to accept the Review Panel’s recommendation if the Panel recommends a northern plaza, a plaza design that gets out of the Park and away from it,  and a signature six-lane span?

I suppose there’s that possibility. I think that the biggest concern is the city. If the city holds firm on the easements, the PBA can’t renege. They can’t build a bridge to the middle of the Black Rock Canal. They’d have to pick up quite a head of steam to leap that final 120 feet.

Do you have any concern that the city might weaken?

Yes. I’m very much concerned. It’s difficult. The city has lots of other problems that they’d like to focus on and they don’t want to have to focus on the Peace Bridge forever. The Peace Bridge is a problem that shouldn’t be a problem. There’s a developer up there, a public entity, that should be responsive to the public’s desires who is self-funded and fully resourced, fully capable of doing this all by themselves by simply going out and buying property and assembling it and building what they need to build. The city does not necessarily have to be involved in this and I’m sure that they’d like to turn their attention to problems that are more specific to the city agenda. I think that the biggest reason why the city remains steadfast is because we gathered signatures of close to 11,000 people during our petitioning drive during the late spring and early summer last year and most of those people who signed the petition in favor of an all-new bridge and an all-new plaza are city residents. Those are people who vote and I think that’s really something that has to weigh on the city’s mind because they want to do what the constituents want. It’s their mandate.

And Judge Fahey?

There is an agreement between the city and the Public Bridge Authority to respect the decision of the Panel, but that agreement is not a constitutional amendment, so no matter what happens, Judge Fahey still has the hammer in his hand. The law says what you have to do in terms of environmental review. If he decides that the environmental review was adequate, there’s really nothing anybody can do about it. The Bridge Authority will just go ahead. If he decides that it wasn’t adequate, there’s really nothing that the Bridge Authority can do about it. They have to go back and do a nonsegmented EIS. So he’s the most powerful player in all of this.

I have faith that Judge Fahey is going to say “You can’t do a $200 million infrastructure project in the middle of an urban community on a segmented basis. We’ve  got to look at this holistically.” If that was not the letter of the law, I think it was the intent and the spirit of the law. I think that’s what he’s going to say, I hope that’s what he’s going to say. And with that in my heart, I put my full effort into the Panel because I think that the Panel is an important group to have assembled to help the Public Bridge Authority, as an applicant, get through the EIS process.
 

[OPTIMISM AT THE BORDER]

Right now I think that the government in Fort Erie is very frustrated with the citizens of Buffalo and I think that they put my name on top of the list of most frustrating people, and maybe your name right there next to mine. Mayor Redekop told me that he wished that we would just get our act together. I think that we are getting our act together. And I think that once we do get our act together he’s going to be true to his word and he’s going to work with us and we’re going to have a happy result of all this.

This project could be seminal. It literally could signify our ability to turn ourselves around. There’s nothing that’s inherently wrong with Western New York or Southern Ontario. We just haven’t figured out what we want to be in the new millennium yet. We haven’t reinvented ourselves since the steel plant was built in Lackawanna in 1901. And now is our chance. As a binational region--that’s the way I think we should be reinventing ourselves.

I think we’re going to have some good results. I really do believe that this is the beginning of a turnaround and we just need to draw some of our strategy into focus and once the strategy is in focus then the good people of Buffalo are going to be able to get a lot of things done. I’m an optimist. You have to be an optimist.

copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson

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